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Fr. 603

March 17, 2015

A recent publication at Big Think makes clear to what extent it is important to privilege communication over expression. The author finds much to make of this distinction and notes:

Effective communication is similar to magic, for it transmutes the unseen concepts in our minds into tangible form, so that they can once again disappear into, and transform, the unseen structures of other minds. There, however, is a large divide between expression and communication. Expression consists of our raw utterances, free of any translation or refinement. Communication, on the other hand, is expression that has been modified and honed in order to fit into the mental models of an intended audience. It’s expression with empathy.

In essence, expression takes more of a purely subjectivist form, the unfolding in the public realm of all that which preoccupies the mental. In pure expression, the expressed undergoes no work of refinement beyond that which mental processes initially lend it. In short, expression is presented as is, a way of making apparent to others our thoughts as they appear to ourselves. The literary embodiments of expression are thus to be found in such techniques as stream of consciousness narration and internal monologue, the peculiarities and difficulties of which are known to readers everywhere.

On the other hand, communication makes itself manifest in the public realm in a refined form; additional cognitive work and structures have been brought to work on that which was minimally refined in the initial mental processes. Specifically, we might juxtapose communication with something like that of Stout’s reason-giving in the sense that communication is expression which has been tailored to the specific conceptual background of a certain audience both in terms of rhetorical moves and the premises from and to which the argument progresses.

The difference between expression and communication is thus one of degree rather than of kind. We can perhaps speak of a transmutation but only within certain limits. Yet the effects of expression makes themselves all the more felt in its purer, subjectivist forms. For this reason, expression produces certain negative affects in the audience, intended or otherwise:

Expression, after all, can be quite draining to attend to, since it’s often like listening to a subway car screeching down the tracks or the incomprehensible chatter of crickets in the night. Enduring messages that conflict with our values is probably one of the more frustrating, even infuriating, experiences in life.

In contemporary political discourse, much suggests that it is precisely expression to which we are subjected and freedom of speech as that which safeguards this same expression. In other words, too little communication in the form of reason-giving takes place. If, in reason-giving, we are communication rather than expressing, we can see genuine reason-giving as that communication which distances or separates us from the more subjectivist strands of romanticism still operative in our conceptual background and inheritance qua the great pouring and emptying out of subjective being unto the world. Communication necessarily entails a real engagement with the other, not essentialized or reduced but authentically encountered.

For the reasons above, it is important to rein in certain tendencies to which we have given voice elsewhere, namely, that Stout’s thought can be placed in striking proximity to that of certain French post-structuralist thinkers like Deleuze. If both engage the intermingling of expression and communication in modern discourse, it is nonetheless important to mark out the bounds separating the their respective thoughts. For Stout privileges communication, as suggested above, in the form of reason-giving, particularly as formulated in his responses to Rawls in Chapter 3 of Democracy and Tradition.

In contrast, Deleuze has always manifested a certain suspicion with regards to communication as best shown by the aspersions cast on philosophical discussion. Insofar as the participants to discussion never fully make clear the context from which they set out, they prove so many ships passing in the night and philosophical communication no more than a futile endeavor. If there remains for Deleuze a communication, this can only be an imperfect one in the form of the shock to thought posed by problems encountered by a minimal subject in the world as well as in philosophical texts.

Yet this communication must be understood within particular bounds for it is the quasi-physical transfer of energy from an emerging problem to a feeling subject for whom this problem only then begins to take on form.There is a certain violence to the proceeding, which is missing on Stout’s view and, hence, limits any rapprochement between the two. This distance perhaps owes to Deleuze’s (more or less) thoroughgoing absence of self on post-structuralist pictures, a predicament deplored by Stout in Chapter 12 of The Flight from Authority.


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